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Four Steps To Forming - And Keeping - Good Habits

Don't get to attached to that ideal vista on your jog, Gretchen Rubin says. It's key to have a backup plan for inclement weather.

If you've never been able to get out of bed for a morning run, keep your place clean or give up fast food, it might be time to stop wallowing in guilt and find out why.

Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before, is an expert at helping people keep promises to themselves, even those who've only been consistent in resisting healthy choices. She helped Think listeners decide what they really want and get it. 

You might ask why this self-help author on the cover of Parade is one worth hearing out. Consider Rubin's eating habits, which I observed upon her visit to the studio. She told me she'd stuck to a low-carb, paleo-leaning diet for three years with no cheat days. On the way upstairs, I tested her: "What do you do for snacks?"

She pulled some Nick's Sticks from her purse, a notoriously filling portion of grass-fed beef only available online. (Everyone who's tried a similar diet knows how grazing on almonds for even a few weeks is not sustainable.) Verified.

Step One: Find Your Tendency

Rubin tailors her advice according to someone's relationship with expectation. She identifies four categories of people:

Upholders are already good at this. They've built trust with themselves, have healthy impulse control, and don't freak out about expectations from outside, either. Rubin identifies as an Upholder, of course. She makes podcast episodes with magic on "how to resist the evil donut-bringer," for goodness' sake.  

Questioners need a lot of convincing before they decide to do something. They compare the number of calories burned by different workouts, for example, and wonder if they've made the right decision for a long time. Option paralysis can be a problem here, although a well-researched decision in and of itself is a good thing. 

Obligers can serve their supervisors and colleagues with tireless energy but have problems staying true to what they really want when no one's asking them for something. Picture The Wire's Kima Greggs - she slays at work, but often relies on her partner for motivation and direction in her personal life, foregoing her own wishes and acting out as a result of dissatisfaction. (For proof of the positives an Obliger can bring to her world, read about the contributions of Sonja Sohn, the actress who plays Greggs.) 

Rebels loathe expectation in general and want nothing of routine. They prefer to do tasks their own way, and tend to hate it when someone tells them how to do something. Rebels are often idealized as heroes; if you're aspiring to be Jo March in the material world, though, you have to have the discipline to write every day and find your own way to do it. 

If you aren't sure which is your overriding tendency, Rubin has this simple quiz to help. 

Step Two: Decide which habits are even worth pursuing.  

A woman called Think asking how she might learn to clean after a life of doing household chores "only in an emergency." 

Surprisingly, Rubin said if cleaning is not actually important to her, and it's not going to actually hurt her or someone else, she might need to accept that a clean place isn't in the cards for her. 

"If you don’t really care, you’re not going to change the habit," Rubin said. 

Upholders are not exempt from bad habits. Rubin herself is a hair-twister, and she's accepted that. 

“Unless I’m around my mother, ‘cause it really, truly drive my mother crazy, I just twist my hair – that’s just something about me and I don’t really try to change it anymore.” 

Step Three: Change your reward system.

“The problem with a reward is,  it requires judgment, it requires a decision," Rubin said. "So it interferes with that kind of automatic pilot that we want to create with habits.”

So, she explained, if you want to run, don't give yourself a scone every time you hit three miles. If you establish that ritual, when you're on vacation or it's raining or you sprain your ankle, it's the scone habit that will remain and not the running. 

Instead, she suggested, give yourself something that will further the habit. For example, if you run three times a week for six months, indulge in that pair of hot pink Nike Air Max and keep running.

Step Four: Find strategies that work for you. First strategy: Be kind to yourself. 

Rubin's favorite writer, Samuel Johnson, once wrote, "All severity that does not tend to prevent evil or increase good is idle." 

Establishing good habits doesn't look like whip-cracking. It looks like only watching House of Cards when you're on the treadmill, or only eating while sitting at a table, or carrying a reading list around with you. All of these enhance your life and don't increase your fear of living it wrong. 

Listen to the full conversation with Gretchen Rubin

About Think

Think features in-depth interviews with compelling guests, covering a wide variety of topics -- from history, politics and current events to science, travel and adventure. Think airs on KERA 90.1 FM noon-2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with repeats at 9-11 p.m. Listen to Think interviews here.